Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Real Meaning of Advent

   We are quite accustom to all the holiday hullabaloo that occurs this time of the year, perhaps none more well-known than those winter watch words, “Put Christ back in Christmas,” or “We Say Merry Christmas.” Of course, the real meaning of Christmas is essential and we dare not over look it. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves and jump the liturgical gun (or, if you prefer football metaphors, draw a false start penalty), missing the most over-looked, under-appreciated and misunderstood seasons of the church year, Advent. In fact, we need to put Advent back in Christmas, for the real meaning of Christmas lies in the real meaning of Advent. If the culture has tossed out God’s gift of Christmas with the wrapping paper, then the Church in modern times has thrown out the season of Advent before the baby is even in the bathwater. Why has the season of Advent fallen on such hard times? What can be done via positive – even Scriptural and Confessional - arguments to restore the rich treasure that is the season of Advent?

   In order to answer these questions briefly, we will be led through three Scriptural themes of Advent by the light of God’s Word in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s sermons; here the Holy Spirit will take us to His workshop and tinker with His Word.

   Repentance. This is where the season of Advent begins in earnest, with the call of John the Baptist, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Repentance is a theme of Advent as in Lent. However, the focus is different. In Lent, repentance focuses the believer on the life of Christ and His suffering of our sins on our behalf. In Advent, while His future death is expectant, the focus of repentance revolves around the anticipation and waiting, not only His first advent in human flesh but also His second advent on the Last Day. This makes John the Baptist the iron preacher of Advent.

   “The message of Advent becomes a disturbing penitential sermon for us and this is as it must be. Before Jesus stands John the Baptist, before Christmas stands Advent. It is only through repentance that we come to the fulfillment of Christmas” (Bonhoeffer, DBW 10:588).

   And yet this runs counter to our “me-generation” way of life. Repentance calls us to examine ourselves in light of God’s Word, in light of the Commandments, which expose our sin. And much more than expose, repentance calls us into judgment for our sin. Repentance calls us to live outside ourselves, to be convicted of our sin, but also to be forgiven by Christ, who is he fulfillment of Advent. God’s uses His Law in Advent just as He does throughout all seasons, to kill and bring to life, to bring low and to exalt.

   “Look up, you there staring emptily down at earth” (Bonhoeffer, DBW 13:341). Lift up your heads, you mighty gates, the King of Glory is coming. Jesus comes for those whose eyes have been turned away from heaven only to weep at the world before them. Advent announces the coming end of your humiliation and defeat as they become Christ’s humiliation and defeat. This is the joy and promise we look forward to as we wait.

   Waiting. Advent is a season of waiting which also runs counter to our old sinful nature. “Celebrating Advent means being able to wait…those unfamiliar with the bitter bliss of waiting, of doing without while maintaining hope, will never experience the blessing of fulfillment” (Bonhoeffer, DBW 10:542). Much of life is spent waiting – engagement, laborious years in education, employment, politics, sickness and so on. But when it comes to Advent, it seems that the Church has had more influence from the culture than vice versa. We are by sinful nature, impatient. And so, waiting runs counter to everything our old Adam knows and loves so well, you. Waiting means denying yourself. Waiting means the church is not at all like our private living rooms, but rather a sacred space in which the holy days of Advent are spent in joyful anticipation of the coming of Christ through Christ’s own presence in Word and Sacrament. This transforms everything we say and do in the church. Popular traditions, such as the Advent wreath and the banners hung each Sunday as Christmas approaches, visually confess what the Scriptures teach about Advent. Traditions like this can be easily replicated in the home. Historically, many churches have even set up decorations in stages as Advent anticipation increases with each new week, drawing us closer to the promise and fulfillment of Christmas. Bonhoeffer reminds us well that it is precisely in waiting that our Lord comes to us:

   Only people who carry restlessness around them can wait, and people who look up reverently to the One who is great in the world. Hence only those who souls give them no peace are able to celebrate Advent, who feel poor and incomplete and who sense that something of the greatness of what is coming, before which one can only bow in humble timidity, in anticipation till God inclines toward us – the Holy One, God in the child of the manger” (Bonhoeffer BDW 10:542).

   This was the restless hope that Mary carried with her as she pondered the coming birth of Christ. In her lowliness, she embodies the lowliness of Advent throughout the ages.

   Lowliness. It should come as no surprise that this theme, as with the previous ones, seems foolish to the world. But this is precisely the way God works, through foolish, lowly means – an unwed virgin mother, God in infant human flesh. God is not ashamed of human lowliness. Quite the opposite in fact. He is most concerned with it and has done everything to for us who struggle with in this sinful fallen world.  In our world of sin, evil and death, Advent even carries for us an aching homesickness for the new creation that comes in Christ.

   “A groan wrests itself from our breast, ‘Come, God, Lord Jesus Christ, come into our world, into our homelessness, into our sin, into our death, come you yourself, and share with us, be a human being as we are and conquer for us…Come along into my death, into my sufferings and struggles, and make me holy and pure despite this evil, despite death” (Bonhoeffer, DBW 10:543).

   The only answer is the pronouncement of Advent, the promise of Redemption through Christ where God Himself answers the cry of humanity definitively in His Son. Jesus comes. That’s what Advent means after all, come. Come, Lord Jesus. And in this way, Advent is a picture of the entire Christian life: repentance and forgiveness, waiting and fulfillment, lowliness and exaltation, death and redemption – all won for us by Christ and all experienced by Christ for us. And so with each passing Advent, we await the final Advent.

   “The time of Advent is a time of waiting, though our entire life is a time of Advent, a time of waiting for that final time when a new heaven and a new earth will emerge…Yes, come soon, Lord Jesus. Amen” (Bonhoeffer, DBW 10:546).

   May your homes and families be filled with the hope and promise of Christ this joyous Advent season as the Sunday sermons and midweek services draw us into the joyful, penitential, waiting, lowly and yet blessed, glorious and holy season.

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